Gandhi’s lost gem
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi decided, in the same year that Harilal was born — and in the face of several adverse circumstances — to go to London to become a barrister.Updated: Sep 18, 2019 13:50 IST
Kastur was 19 when she gave birth, in 1888, to her eldest son. So was her husband, the new-born’s father. That made Harilal the child of teenagers. But this was usual for those times. Under normal circumstances, the boy would have grown to be like all sons born of young Kathiawaris of the time — except that his father was neither usual nor normal.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi decided, in the same year that Harilal was born — and in the face of several adverse circumstances — to go to London to become a barrister.
His young wife and infant son were left in the care of his mother, his brothers and their wives, Kastur’s jethanis. How mother and son managed in their daily lives for those three years — highly formative for a child, as medical science tells — we can only guess. Neither parent has spoken about it. But the situation certainly bound mother and son for all time.
Mohandas, meanwhile, was showing signs, at a pace no one could keep up with, of the beginning of a millennial leader. He left the very next day for India, after being called to the bar, but found himself — through a series of rapid developments — in South Africa. Once there, he was to storm bastions of power and custom through rallies, protests, marches, petitions, and legal cases.
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So deep and strong was Gandhi’s impact on Indian South Africans that he came to be called by them, spontaneously and widely, as ‘Gandhibhai’ — an appellation he warmed to. When Gandhibhai’s public work was at its peak in 1906-7, and satyagraha as a concept and a weapon was born, Harilal turned 19.
He too, was at his peak, in terms of agility and motivation. As also in will power.
Determined to marry Chanchal, also known as Gulab, a daughter of the Vora family the Gandhis were close to in Gujarat, he went against his father’s opposition (made on the grounds that he should not commit the same mistake as his parents, and marry at so young an age). Harilal brought her over to South Africa to his mother’s joy and his father’s acceptance of the fait accompli. Gandhi had, by now, understood that his eldest of four sons had a strong will and a matching readiness to suffer for it.
And so, in the same year that Gandhi experienced his first imprisonment — 1908 — he sent Harilal to court it, too. Why, his friend, a Jewish doctor, Hermann Kallenbach asked Gandhi, did you have you to send Hari to jail? He replied, “I think whatever my son does at my instance can be taken to have been done by me…” and added, “I want every Indian to do what Harilal has done…”
Harilal was, by now, not only a participant in his father’s struggles but an alternative to him, earning the sobriquet of Chhote Gandhi (Gandhi junior).
And very soon, after another sentencing, Gandhi joined Harilal in Volksrust prison. Writing to Chanchal from there, on 26 February, 1909, Gandhi said, “Harilal and I are quite well. Be sure that we are happier here than you…!” The happiness was not to last. After a stormy quarrel, Harilal exited home and left South Africa.
After his parents returned to India, and Gandhi began to be hailed as ‘Mahatma’, Harilal would track down his mother during his parents’ journeys. In the town of Katni where at the railway station resounding with “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!” his lone voice was heard saying, “Mata Kasturba ki jai!” With that Harilal scrambled onto the compartment and gave his mother a fruit saying it was meant only for her.
When Kasturba lay dying, imprisoned at the Aga Khan Palace in what was then Poona, in 1944, Harilal turned up. She was overjoyed, as was his father. But when he returned a second time, drunk, she broke down.
Harilal’s “antics” — as Gandhi called his son’s frequent jousts with the law for drunkenness and disorderly behaviour — his farcical conversion to Islam, and the equally silly re-conversion through the Arya Samaj to Hinduism, pained Gandhi. But he never gave up trying to change Harilal’s lifestyle and often blamed himself for it. Rather irrationally, he also blamed his own lustful nature at the time of Kasturba’s conceiving Harilal.
Gandhi battled the stubbornness of two HMGs simultaneously: His Majesty’s Government and that of Harilal Mohandas Gandhi. The first he won, albeit with qualifications, the second he lost comprehensively.
But let no one doubt that there throbbed in the son’s breast, a hidden but strong vein of pride in his father. Harilal’s granddaughter Nilam Parikh has drawn attention to a dateless Gujarati newspaper clipping, which I translate: “When Harilal heard the news of Gandhiji’s death, he spontaneously exploded: ‘I will not rest until I have killed the man who has murdered my father and the world’s only true saint and Mahatma’.” Harilal reacted with the one sharp arrow he always carried in his quiver — rage.
Devadas Gandhi has written of his brother in The Hindustan Times shortly after Harilal’s death : “…Four days after the assassination… he turned up from somewhere at our house in Delhi to mourn with us. He was ill and had to be carefully nursed. His face was drawn and emaciated and resembled Bapu’s a lot…As he boarded the train for Bombay he said with a weariness not noticed in him before, ‘It is always my lot to be on the move’…”
Rightly has Nilam titled her book on her grandfather, Gandhijinu Khovayelu Dhan (Gandhiji’s lost gem).
(The article has been changed to reflect the correct organisation involved in the re-conversion of Harilal Gandhi)
First Published: Sep 17, 2019 01:43 IST